The North Texas men’s basketball team won’t have to wait long to find out how it stacks up against the elite teams in Conference USA this season.
UNT will face all four C-USA teams that finished with at least 23 wins a year ago in its first seven conference games this fall. The Mean Green will play five of their first seven conference games on the road after finishing 1-12 away from the Super Pit last season.
That tough early slate for the UNT men was among the highlights of the C-USA men’s and women’s basketball conference schedules that were released Wednesday. The slates mirror each other, with each UNT team facing the same opponent with one Mean Green squad at home and the other on the road for all but the first two games of the season.
“The early part of our conference schedule is very challenging,” UNT men’s coach Tony Benford said in a statement. “We open conference play with some of the top teams in C-USA, with three of those games on the road.”
UNT will open conference play at Charlotte on New Year’s Eve before taking on three of C-USA’s premier programs. The Mean Green will travel to Old Dominion on Jan. 2 before returning home to face UAB on Jan. 5 and Middle Tennessee on Jan. 7.
MTSU upset Michigan State in the NCAA tournament last season. Louisiana Tech and Old Dominion played in the Vegas 16 postseason tournament, with the Monarchs winning the title. UAB played in the NIT.
UNT released a nonconference schedule that includes games against Texas Tech, Rutgers and Texas-Arlington earlier this summer. Benford said he hoped that slate of early games would prepare UNT for conference play and help the Mean Green post a turnaround season.
UNT finished 12-20 last year, the Mean Green’s fourth straight campaign at .500 or under. Those struggles have put Benford under pressure to turn the corner. UNT did not extend Benford’s contract after last season, leaving him entering the final year of his initial five-year deal this fall.
Benford says he has the team to break through for his first winning season at UNT. The Mean Green return every significant player from last season’s team with the exception of starting forward Eric Katenda.
Jeremy Combs returns after being named to the All-C-USA second team. The junior forward averaged 14.9 points and 10.5 rebounds last season and is one of three players UNT has returning who averaged at least 14.5 points.
Point guard J-Mychal Reese and shooting guard Deckie Johnson, who averaged 14.7 and 14.5 points, respectively, also return.
“We have a more experienced and talented team this season,” Benford said. “We look forward to the challenge.”
The UNT women are coming off a productive debut season under Jalie Mitchell, who led the Mean Green to an 11-19 record and a first-round win over Florida Atlantic in the conference tournament.
UNT more than doubled its win total of five from the previous season and will have a chance to get off to a quick start while playing five of its first seven games at home.
“We have a very competitive schedule, and it will always be that way in this league,” Mitchell said in a statement. “It’s what I love about it, that you have to show up to play every single day. We are fortunate to be able to start conference play at home.”
The Mean Green women also return several of their key players, including guards Kelsey Criner, Candice Adams and Terra Ellison. Criner averaged 13.0 points per game. Adams tallied 11.0 points while Ellison added 10.1.
UNT will have several key transfers eligible for the first time this season, including Stabresa McDaniel (Minnesota) and Terriell Bradley (Kansas).
“After nonconference play and the experience of our first year, I believe we will be ready to make a name for ourselves and improve our standing,” Mitchell said.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.
North Texas C-USA schedules
The following are North Texas’ men’s and women’s basketball Conference USA schedules:
Friday, Dec. 30 (W)
Saturday, Dec. 31 (M)
Sunday, Jan. 1 (W)
Monday, Jan. 2 (M)
at Old Dominion
Thursday, Jan. 5
Saturday, Jan. 7
at Middle Tennessee
Saturday, Jan. 14
Thursday, Jan. 19
at Southern Mississippi
Saturday, Jan. 21
at Louisiana Tech
Thursday, Jan. 26
Saturday, Jan. 28
at Old Dominion
Saturday, Feb. 4
Thursday, Feb. 9
at Florida Atlantic
Saturday, Feb. 11
at Florida International
Thursday, Feb. 16
Saturday, Feb. 18
at Texas-San Antonio
Thursday, Feb. 23
at Louisiana Tech
Saturday, Feb. 25
at Southern Miss
Thursday, March 2
at Western Kentucky
Saturday, March 4